Civil Society and Religion in the Early U.S.

by Chris Beneke

The Sunday
Boston Globe "Ideas" section includes an interview by Samuel P. Jacobs with Johann N. Neem, associate professor of history at Western Washington State. The subject is Neem's book, Creating a Nation of Joiners: Democracy and Civil Society in Early National Massachusetts (Harvard, 2008), which considers, among other things, the role of churches and ministers in America's emergent civil society. The book, Neem writes, "questions the assumption that America's voluntary tradition emerged naturally out of the democratic ideals of the American Revolution. Americans were uneasy about becoming a nation of joiners and accepted it only when other options failed." Here's an excerpt from Jacobs' interview with Neem:

IDEAS: We think of freedom of association as a right like freedom of assembly. But this idea is not a concept we can date back to the American Revolution.

NEEM: Today we are much more pluralistic. We tend to think of society as divided up into groups with their own interests, each of which has the right to divide up and pursue their own welfare. That is our modern right, which emerged out of this idea that the hope for a government with one interest is constantly being threatened by people dividing. Freedom of association emerges as a way for outsider groups to continue to pursue their private or political causes. Freedom of association is in a sense the embodiment of a failure of a certain kind of revolutionary hope.

IDEAS: Another thing that we read backwards onto the founders, you argue, is a separation between church and state.

NEEM: One of the things that is important to remember is that Massachusetts had a tax-supported church until 1833. The only competitors, in a sense, were Connecticut in 1818 and New Hampshire in 1819. Only in New England. Most of the states separated church and state right after the Revolution. Why did they do that? Why did it last so long is the question. The answer is that in many ways the public church as well as the militia or the public school were seen as sources of social unity by providing a common institutional experience and also common values.

IDEAS: In many parts of the US, today’s church leaders have become as important as political leaders. How engaged were church leaders in Massachusetts in the 19th century?

NEEM: Church leaders, as well as religious people, congregants, were very active in politics. What is interesting is that the church leadership in Massachusetts started to discover in the 1820s and 1830s that their influence would be greater less through state sanction and more through the cultivation of their congregants. Increasingly church leaders said less we need an alliance with the state, in fact that is a handicap. What we need is to convert people and then mobilize those people. Some of the most mobilized Americans in the 1820s and 1830s were Evangelicals coming out of these churches.

What is a continuation is the ways in which the church has some of the most active citizens. Citizens who still have the ability to write legislators, to organize themselves, are coming out of churches. You see it today not just in today’s conservative movement. You saw it in the civil rights movement coming out of the African-American churches. It is not really liberal or progressive or conservative, it has to do with how citizens participate in public life.


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